4/6. grindhouse.

christopher funderburg

In October 2006, Funderburg and Cribbs set out to watch at least 200 movies over the course of the next 200 days. They both watched a different slate of films and wrote about every single one; from epic high art masterpieces such as Jean-Pierre Melvile's Army of Shadows to half-forgotten oddities like I Bury the Living to quality-deficient garbage like Charles Band's Tourist Trap. The Pink Smoke is reprinting their writings about the grueling experiment in cinematic endurance - due to the length of the essays, some of the entries such as Berlin Alexanderplatz and Cobra Verde will be broken out individually.

<<click here for 3/22 - 3/31>>


4.6. Grindhouse.

(35mm) UA Union Square.

[A quick disclaimer from the year 2010: this Grindhouse write-up is not my finest moment. The ideas are all over the fucking place and, honestly, I'm not sure I was really pursuing any coherent idea. I've found my footing with Tarantino if you really care what I think about him, you're better off reading this essay from my 2009 Year in Review. - christopher]

This film made me aware of a matching set of strange facts: I've always been willing to cut Robert Rodriguez a lot of slack (even though I've never been a particularly big fan of any of his films) and, conversely, I've never been willing to cut Quentin Tarantino any slack at all. Both of the films splitting Grindhouse's double bill suck, but for the dubious reasoning above, I didn't mind Rodriguez's Planet Terror and I hated Taratino's Deathproof. Of course, the critical receptions that have greeted the individual work of the Grindhouse filmmakers is what drives my mirrored forgiveness of their failings: if people were constantly telling me that Rodriguez is anything other than a moderately talented, infectiously enthusiastic hack, I would probably have started at some point to demand more from his films. On that level, Planet Terror is totally harmless and not worth thinking about – that’'s the way it should be: if I can essentially disregard/forget Planet Terror, all is right in the universe.

On the other hand, of course, Tarantino is that moderately talented, infectiously enthusiastic hack constantly hailed in critical circles as some kind of genius (or, at very least, idiot savant); so, naturally, I have always craved something more from his films other than moments of solid execution, out-sized caricatured performances, and an over-reliance on an encyclopedic knowledge of genre film. The standard criticisms of his films are all true and the knee-jerk deflections of those criticisms are also all true, but personally, I've always felt like the only thing separating his films from the legions of imitators like Boondock Saints and Way of the Gun is that Tarantino is schooled enough to drop references to The Searchers and Twisted Nerve amongst the dick-swinging jack-assery.

Part of the reason I've always disliked Quentin Taratino is that his movies take something populist and accessible (various genre films and filmmakers) and turn them into something elitist. Its well-documented, and very much a contentious point, that he's constantly referencing (or, less kindly, "ripping off") a whole host of other films and filmmakers. On a certain level, his movies become an elaborate game of "spot the reference" – "do you know this filmmaker" or "do you remember this costume, this hand gesture, this camera movement?" In short, his films are games in which only a small portion of the population will "get it:" he takes the base genres to which any audience should have access and makes them exclusionary, which is definitely a debasement of the only consistent philosophy to which genre films subscribe.

Maybe it's not his fault that what he steals he changes for the worse. On the surface, he seems to love the films from which he plunders, but something about the whole enterprise reeks of disingenuousness. His films are often oppressive in their hyper-imaginative approach, overloaded with a cinematic garrulousness. They are encyclopedic in their knowledge of the history of film and want to race one step ahead of the history with which they are so intertwined. As a result, they also feel like a rejection of the past, like a denial of where they come from. They are "genre" films, instead of simply genre films. Maybe it's the fault of his critics and interpreters. Maybe they give him too much credit as a post-modern pastiche artist when all he really wants to be is Budd Boetticher.

More likely, he wants to be Warren Oates. His films seem content to simply play around inside the fantasy world on which he's been weaned since birth - it's natural that his early career was derailed with embarrassing asides as an actor: he doesn't want to make movies, he wants to live them. His films have the obsessive quality of a child who constructs complicated scenarios involving his toys. Every element has a highly-developed backstory, no gesture or position is unconsidered. Additionally, those toys are pre-existing characters like G.I. Joe or the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. He's not a creator outright, but a co-opter. His toys come with their own backstory around which he weaves new scenarios – and then they become his characters in his fantasy world.

In discussing his films, Tarantino treats his characters and the situations of his films without irony, he has an infectious enthusiasm for every tic of the films – that expansive love of all things cinema permeates his work as a subliminal signal, but there's something on the surface that seems intentionally designed to mute that signal. I think that muting device is "artistic credibility." The fact is that Tarantino is not simply a low-budget schlock auteur. He is not Fred Olen Ray or Kenji Fukasaku; he is nothing less than "The Face of American Independent Cinema," a revolutionary leading (or now: "that led") American cinema into the next phase of its storied history. One thing that is true in this world is that we don't get to choose our own name - of all of the things we control, that isn't one of them.

So, I'm not sure if Tarantino aspired to be the superstar that he is – actually, I'm more convinced he aspires to be the superstar that he thinks his own cinematic heroes are. I'd believe it if he said wants to follow in the gigantic and awe-inspiring footsteps of Monte Hellman and Lucio Fulci. Of course, those filmmakers never meant anything to anyone but video-store nerds like me and Tarantino. Certainly, he has used his power for good more than evil – would Ride in the Whirlwind have ever gotten a dvd release if his name weren't plastered all over the box? Maybe it would have, but only one of those discount dvds and some young cinephile, some fourteen year old in Tuscaloosa, would never have thought twice about that strange and beautiful film because it didn't come with the QT seal of approval.

But did he want to be the specific icon that he is? I think his status in the art world is actually what paralyzes his work. In particular, his stillborn and awkward Jackie Brown feels all caught up between a naked play for further credibility and the genre schlock at which Tarantino excels. It's the film in which he clearly feels the most pressure to deliver that Tarantino magic: it's indecivesly trapped between its genuine affection for great actors who never got the credit they deserved, genuine affection for Pam Greer and Michael Keaton, for the boozy coolness of Elmore Leonard's slight and funny novel, for blaxploitation and drug-running subplots and camera tricks and unexpected bursts of hilarious/terrifying violence – trapped between all that and a desire to be what the critics referred to as "mature" and "contemplative."

He's no fool. He could see how the Coen Brothers became marginalized as one-trick ponies, ghettoized because of their incessant playing. He could see how his contemporaries all fumbled the ball when it came to "maturing" into viable, long-lasting, true icons. The childish, self-contained play-world qualities of Robert Rodriguez, Kevin Smith, and, say, David Fincher, have insured their reputation as entertainers, craftsmen, "non-artists." Tarantino can remember, though, when they rode the next wave of "American art cinema." The pressure he feels, it's understandable. Pulp Fiction is the film that will define American art cinema for a generation. Naturally, its follow-up feels compelled to make a case for its own gravity and importance.

Unfortunately, Tarantino doesn’t know how to go about doing it. He thinks of all the "important" films he's ever seen. Aren't they solemn? Slow-moving? Filled with long graceful camera moves? Why can't he do Ophuls and Welles and Renoir and Resnais and Antonioni and Ozu? He knows Rohmer as well as he knows John Woo! He can make a film that has long-pregnant pauses and circular, circling dialogue with the best of them, dammit. He can take his sweet-ass time getting to the point, then drift from the story for moody asides. He can have weighty, serious moments and mournful, complicated performances. Only, the glitch is that he can't. Tarantino’s style isn't designed around those elements. His style functions against those elements: the B-picture is one of the most popular and accessible forms in film history. That solemnity, that sense of maturity that is so crucial to cementing the lasting cinematic legacy of Tarantino, is notoriously evasive, elliptical, confusing, difficult, elusive. It's intended for a specific audience that has deliberately cultivated a taste for such things. In short: elitist. It's the opposite of the form he understand so well: the populist mania of the b-movie.

That form (the b-movie) really is the perfect conduit for what he does best: constructing elaborate, fantasy worlds in which adult fear and desire can frolic and multiply and explode with the uninhibited imagination of a child. It can be an echo-chamber of the noisy and delirious sounds of hyper-attentive fantasy. Ultimately, Tarantino listens to the schoolmarms who want him to stop day-dreaming and to focus on the serious work at hand. This seriousness punctures the fantasy. It ruins what is valuable about his films. I can't Jackie Brown seriously, because it takes itself seriously. The same disease afflicts the final forty or so minutes of Kill Bill 2. The long dialogue scene with David Carradine and Uma Thurman is absolutely embarrassing. It is among the worst scenes in any film I have ever scene. It is pompous, poorly acted, awkwardly written, unsatisfying to the plot and generally flat. The scene between the hit-woman and Uma in the hotel is just as bad.

As soon as we're supposed to take his movies seriously, that's the moment they become unbearable. The problem is this: they attempt to transform what anyone can understand (in Kill Bill, the complicated desire for revenge) into something pretentious and self-conscious (a "film" with themes about maternity, fate, and vengeance). He gets us into it through purely pulp means, but abandons the pulp when it matters most. Contrary to the still-popular notion otherwise, b-movies are perfectly capable of sustaining complicated and difficult ideas. They just access and present those ideas in a different way than, say, Antonioni would. These type of complicated and difficult ideas are, of course, compatible with a kung-fu/yakuza/pan-Asian-film-stew like Kill Bill. In this particular case, the showdown, the resolution is the key. He wimps out, though. He loses his guts to go for the all-out trashy spectacle that made Reservoir Dogs so invigorating. That film is simply a bank robbery movie. He sets the stakes and lets it go bad. You know it’s going to go bad – it's already gone bad ten minutes after the movie has started. Michael Madsen and Lawrence Tierney know how to play it – they are B-movie superstars, a B-movie Bogart and Eastwood. And it's genuinely great, it fires on all cylinders for one-hundred short minutes.

You can imagine an alternate universe where Reservoir Dogs goes straight to video without a whisper of PR and begins slowly gaining a reputation over a decade or so and, by then, Tarantino's already made another seven movies so you check them out and they all have their idiosyncratic virtues. Every one of those films has something surprising and weird and unexpected about it. Not a single one of them is a masterpiece. Not a single one of them is ever up for an award and nobody writes an article about him until he's in his sixties. I like to imagine the world in which all of Tarantino's films don't feel the pressure to be something they're not. I wonder if he's aware that he's actually forsaking his legacy by losing the guts to make movies with no high-art value, no post-modern self-consciousness, no "serious" themes, no acknowledgement of his place in cinema history, no positioning for his place in the pantheon. The sad fact is, he could have been better than Monte Hellman and John Flynn combined – he has more raw talent, imagination, and simple virtuosity than just about any filmmaker I can think of. But he blew it. Unless he wises up, he'll never make another film rivaling those of his B-movie idols.

Deathproof is a development I didn't see coming: it contains of the worst of this tendency to fetishize genre films and simultaneously reject them – it's not willing to be anything other than another chatty, self-indulgent "Quentin Tarantino Film" and doesn’t seem to have any intention of respecting any of the several b-movie genres with which it flirts. But, perversely, defiantly, it also refuses any semblance of "deeper meaning." It's the b-movie that holds b-movies in contempt, taking the form prisoner to Tarantino's apparently over-sized self-regard. It rejects both complex meaning (thematic depth, any semblance of substance in its characters or plot) and shallow meaning (good, ol' fashioned b-movie thrills). It's boring, pointless and utterly self-satisfied. The climatic car chase is nothing. The aimless, pop-culture obsessed dialog of which the bulk of the film consists has long since grown stale as a cinematic affect. There is no nudity, no perversity, no suspense and very little violence. It's his least shocking, least inventive, least madcap, least imaginative film. If Deathproof showed on 42nd Street in 1976, the audience would have either booed or snoozed.*

Incidentally, I enjoyed the trailers and the overall format. It's just the content that sucks. That's fine. I imagine that's what the old gindhouse experience was: movies that don't come anywhere close to living up to their trailers and a genial air of incompetence. I just hope no one gets the stupid idea to actually make real feature length versions of Machete or Werewolf Women of the S.S., but with incorrigible hacks like Rodriguez and Nicholas Cage involved, you never know...

* (or boozed. But not because of the film or anything - that's just what winos and creeps do.)


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